White Wells, Ilkley: The historic Yorkshire spa building paid for by Kate, Princess of Wales's ancestor

Ilkley’s most famous building is not actually in the Wharfedale town but overlooks it from the side of the eponymous moor.
White Wells in IlkleyWhite Wells in Ilkley
White Wells in Ilkley

Long an enduring, almost mandatory feature of Yorkshire calendars, White Wells is a spa bath said to date from around 1700 when a pool was constructed to gather water from a natural spring in order to provide a health remedy known as the “cold water cure” to stimulate circulation.

Unlike other spas, the water has been found to have no medicinal properties.

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The work was paid for by local landowner Peter Middleton, an ancestor of the Princess of Wales, formerly Kate Middleton.

There are differing accounts of its development. Initially the pools were said to be on the open moor, while other accounts suggest a small two-storey building.

On 26th April of that year, local businessman Robert Dale placed an advertisement in the Leeds Intelligencer - forerunner of the Yorkshire Post - claiming that the medicinal properties of the “Spaw [sic] could heal “bad eyes…tumours. . .sores…scrophula...and all cases where the spine is affected [sic].”

This early facility gave birth to Ilkley as a fashionable spa town in Victorian times. One visitor in the 1840s wrote of two baths, one for each sex, surrounded by walls but “open to the sky”.

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By the 1850s there was a roof. Charles Darwin is believed to have bathed there on his visit to Ilkley in 1859. Another user was the Bradford-born composer Frederick Delius.

White Wells was almost demolished in 1872 and replaced by a tearoom, but an outcry saved the building.

After falling into disrepair it was renovated in the 1970s and turned into a heritage centre and cafe.

Visitors can still use the freezing cold water bath, and it has become an annual tradition for scores of bathers to take the plunge on New Year’s Day.

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